Houston, we have a superstar. He’s Chris Hadfield, who crawled out of a space capsule on the plains of Kazakhstan early Tuesday (late Monday Eastern time), dealing with gravity for the first time in five months and sudden global celebrity from singing a gone-viral made-in-space music video.
By late Tuesday, more than 7 million people had viewed the astronaut’s cover of David Bowie’s ethereal 1969 song “Space Oddity” (“Ground control to Major Tom . . . ”), uploaded to YouTube just two days earlier.
In the meantime, Hadfield fell to Earth. He and two fellow astronauts squeezed themselves into a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, undocked from the international space station Monday night and returned to terra firma 255 miles below, their capsule landing as planned in Kazakhstan.
Video footage showed Hadfield, a Canadian, looking rather pancaked by gravity, smiling as he talked on a cellphone to his wife, Helene, who was in Houston at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
“Safely home — back on Earth, happily readapting to the heavy pull of gravity. Wonderful to smell and feel Spring,” he tweeted (he’s @Cmdr_Hadfield on Twitter).
Space travel in the 21st century is still challenging, but it is rarely celebrated, with astronauts rocketing into orbit with hardly a second look from the general public. They circle Earth 16 times a day in total anonymity. With NASA having retired the space shuttle, many Americans may have forgotten that there are still astronauts in space 24 hours a day and that the space station has now been continuously occupied for more than a dozen years.
But now comes Hadfield, 53, with his folk-singer voice and easygoing Canadian manner, a kid from the cornfields of southern Ontario who has turned into one of the most popular astronauts in decades. He has leveraged social media and partnered with his Web-savvy son, Evan, to disperse his photographs, videos and commentary from space.
Even before his slight revision of Bowie’s classic, Hadfield created a viral YouTube video when he demonstrated what it’s like to wring out a washcloth in zero gravity, an experiment designed by a couple of 10th-graders (“It’s becoming a tube of water!”).
He’s shown why you can’t cry in space (“It just forms a ball on my eye”). He’s explained why it’s hard to smell anything in space, and how “eating in space is like eating with a head cold.” From space, he’s chatted with countless students as well as William Shatner (born in Montreal). And, yet, he’s not a self-promoter, his son said Tuesday.
“It’s about getting people to ask questions again,” Evan Hadfield said.
Cmdr. Hadfield had been to space twice before. The first trip was a mission on the space shuttle Atlantis to Russia’s Mir space station in 1995. In 2001 he rode the shuttle Endeavour to the partially built international space station, performing two spacewalks and helping to install a robotic arm made in Canada.
This third trip was a long-duration spaceflight, 146 days total, and he took full advantage of the social-media platforms that have arisen since his second trip to orbit. The Canadian Space Agency could brag mid-morning Tuesday on its Web site that its ace astronaut had 885,000 Twitter followers. By late afternoon the number had hit 929,000.
A fellow Canadian astronaut, Jeremy Hansen, who accompanied Hadfield’s family in Houston during the landing in Kazakhstan, said this kind of outreach is new ground for the space program.
“People are paying attention — perhaps sections of society that haven’t paid attention before,” Hansen said. Of Hadfield’s musical performances and public outreach efforts, Hansen said, “he can do all these other things because he’s really good at the important aspect of the astronaut job, which is taking care of the space station and doing the science.”
It had been a busy weekend for everyone in space, with an unplanned spacewalk, supervised in part by Hadfield from the interior of the space station. Two astronauts switched out a coolant pump in an attempt to stop an ammonia leak that had gotten worse and had forced the shutdown of a power system on the orbital laboratory. NASA is still evaluating whether the repair job did the trick.
The unusual, rushed spacewalk didn’t grab public attention like the music video.
“With deference to the genius of David Bowie, here’s Space Oddity, recorded on Station. A last glimpse of the World,” tweeted Hadfield, who during his time in space helped out on 130 science experiments.
In the music video, Hadfield sings and plays an acoustic guitar while floating in the space station. His son Evan pitched the idea last fall, and he and others on the ground helped mix the music and craft the video. Evan Hadfield said Bowie himself blessed the project. Bowie retweeted Hadfield’s tweet announcing the video and posted a link to it from his official Facebook page, where the Hadfield version (which alters some of the original lines) is referred to as “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created.”
One of the collaborators on the new music video was Emm Gryner, a former backup singer for Bowie. On her blog, she wrote: “I was mostly blown away by how pure and earnest Chris’ singing is on this track. Like weightlessness and his voice agreed to agree.”
This was not Hadfield’s first high-profile musical performance in orbit. In February, he and the Canadian group Barenaked Ladies performed with a youth choir on the first “space-Earth” premiere of a song, “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing),” with Hadfield floating in the cupola of the station, which has the best views in the house.
Hadfield was winging his way back to Houston on Tuesday and will give his first news conference Thursday morning. In past interviews he’s made clear that he thinks human beings have a destiny in space.
“We will go to the moon, and we will go to Mars,” he said in a BBC News interview. “But we’re not going to do it tomorrow, and we’re not going to do it because it titillates the nerve endings. We’re going to do it because it’s a natural human progression.”